Where rock and opera still collide


Seb Hunter's "Rock Me Amadeus" hooked me the moment I opened it in a Manchester bookshop and saw its epigraph, a quote from Elvis: "I don't know anything about music. In my line, you don't have to."

Later in the book, when Hunter gets around to opera, this good-natured British rock journalist &

hoping to get a handle on Handel and classical music in general &

likens Wagner to U2 playing Meat Loaf at Neverland.

That's not a bad analogy for a 19th century proto-psychedelic German opera icon, and it seemed not at all inappropriate for a town that dotes on its rock 'n' roll heritage (yet boasts, with the Halle, the oldest orchestra in Britain).

Manchester, also not inappropriately, was where I had gone this summer to see the world premiere of Damon Albarn's rock opera, "Monkey: Journey to the West." The Broadway and film versions of "Tommy" probably had bigger budgets, but the multi-culti, multimedia "Monkey," directed and conceived by Chen Shi-Zheng, is surely the most artistically ambitious rock opera yet.

Forty years have passed since the Who first envisioned "Tommy," which was called a rock opera but released in 1969 as a two-LP concept album with a fuzzy narrative thread. The Who went on refining "Tommy" over the years (and decades) as it evolved in live concerts, Ken Russell's movie and Des McAnuff's staging.

The Broadway "Tommy" continues to circulate. A production of Pete Townshend's "rock odyssey" (as it's also called) closed in Everett, Wash., on July 15. And the Who remains operatically indefatigable. Two days earlier, Vassar College held a public run-through of Townshend's latest rock opera, "The Boy Who Heard Music," which incorporates songs from the Who's 2006 album, "Endless Wire."

Rock opera has had a spotty history, but by now the barriers between high and low art, between classical and pop music, have been so thoroughly demolished that something was bound to have happened. And, in fact, rockers are welcomed into the opera house and concert hall like never before. Meanwhile, classical composers appropriate from the pop world like crazy. Once-traditional opera companies and classical record labels, ever seeking new audiences (and sources of revenue), have greeted the pop invasion with open arms.

Deutsche Grammophon has released a rock opera by Steve Nieve and Muriel Teodori, "Welcome to the Voice," in which Sting, Robert Wyatt and Elvis Costello mingle with Barbara Bonney and other opera singers. Freddie Mercury, that most overtly operatic of rockers, once hooked up with soprano Montserrat Caballe for the gloriously over-the-top "Barcelona." Caballe is now retired and Mercury is dead, but "Barcelona" lives on; it was just revived by the Ukrainian State Symphony Orchestra with a Sicilian rock singer and a Dutch soprano for a Brilliant Classics recording. Another opera-buff pop star, Rufus Wainwright, has been commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to come up with something or other.

The only problem with all this is that very little rock opera is opera, and very, very little of it is any good. Rockers don't typically claim opera expertise &

just substitute "opera" for "music" in Presley's quote.

Rock opera may have a nice ring, but "Tommy" has far less in common with "Tosca" than it does with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." When the Beatles began the fad for concept albums that special year of 1967, the feeling was that anything was possible. Pop was prepared to rule the world, so why not take on opera?

But "Tommy" was not a hit because Townshend strung 24 songs together with an edifying (and quintessentially operatic) story about an abused child who grows up to be an abusing guru. "Tommy" was a hit because it is a great rock album. But many have pointed out that a collection of songs is a song cycle. Russell's film is primarily a pioneering rock video. "Tommy" onstage is a rock musical, which means watered way down. On the original album, the Who was simply doing what it knew how to do.

The fact that there aren't individual characters who sing in "Tommy," merely songs about characters, doesn't invalidate the work's opera credentials. In two contemporary British operas &

Gerald Barry's "The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit" and George Benjamin's "Into the Little Hill" &

the singers are not the characters and the narrative is, as in a Renaissance madrigal or a concept album, delivered by one and all.

The definition for opera I go by is one that Leonard Bernstein gave when he explained why "West Side Story" was not an opera. In opera, unlike a Broadway show, he said, the drama is resolved through music. Rock musicians don't tend to think like that, nor do they have the technique.

"Barcelona" featured Mercury and Caballe onstage in formal concert dress wonderfully whooping it up, and who needed anything more? But when Stewart Copeland, the erstwhile Police drummer, tried to conquer the straight lyric stage &

orchestra, idiotic libretto, opera singers, the whole ball of wax &

he failed miserably. "Holy Blood and Crescent Moon," commissioned by Cleveland Opera and premiered there in 1989, proved embarrassingly incompetent.

In the end, pop musicians are songsmiths, and songwriters typically have not had an easy time with opera. Of all today's pop musicians, Costello had perhaps the best chance of successfully breaking into opera. His orchestral ballet score, "Il Sogno," is surprisingly impressive and original. But opera appears to have overwhelmed him. "The Secret Songs," which concerns Andersen's obsession with the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, was ultimately billed as "a theatre concert." Originally, Costello wrote a song cycle that was to have been expanded into an opera. Instead, he kept some of the songs and filled the work out with his 1992 song cycle, "The Juliet Letters."

Rockers can take comfort, however, in the fact that classical composers have had no more luck when they try to write in a pop style. John Adams wrestled with the format in his song-based, sort-of-rock-opera, "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky." A couple of songs work, but his style is too complex and the score is thus far his only unsatisfying stage work.

"Welcome to the Voice" and "Monkey" edge closer to what is commonly thought of as opera while retaining a rock identity. "Voice" gets off to a terrible start with a pretentious libretto by Teodori, a French Freudian analyst. A steelworker, Dionysos, contracts the opera bug. His Marxist fellow hard-hats preach the gospel of Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, but Dionysos (sung by Sting) has ears only for the ghosts of "Carmen," "Butterfly" and "Norma." Nieve's music, much of it faceless, is forced to contain page after page of ludicrous text. For the band, Nieve is joined by a string quartet (the Brodsky) and a couple of downtown improvisers &

wind player Ned Rothenberg and guitarist Marc Ribot &

but text, not music, is the driving force.

Albarn is a songwriter, having fronted such popular British bands as Blur and (the animated) Gorillaz. He also has branched out into film scoring, working with Michael Nyman on curiously interesting and odd music for "Ravenous," an unwatchable feature about cannibalism.

"Monkey" is spectacle created for a pop audience. The night I saw the production, which opened the first Manchester International Festival, there was a steady stream of attendees parading in and out for beer and greasy, crunchy food.

The story is a classic Chinese text about a trickster Monkey seeking enlightenment. Animation and designs by Jamie Hewlett delightfully lighted up the stage. A troop of Chinese acrobats dazzled. And the music, which included instruments from lands wide and far, was another level of decoration. Arias were catchy songs. Attractive instrumental licks moved the action along. Only in the last moments did Albarn take some effective baby steps toward ensemble writing. But it was a start, and the opera seems destined for wide dissemination. It is moving on to Paris and Berlin (and perhaps an American venue will pick it up). An album will be released.

So after 40 years of trying, rock's finally got an opera, if one that remains rudimentary. The floodgates for a genuine new genre are wide open, and the promise seems realistic.

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